Netflix's Sacred Games isn't India's Narcos but a show worthy of all the hype
Sacred Games shouldn't be praised because it is the 'Indian Original' that will put the country on the map (it has released simultaneously in 190 countries). Instead, Sacred Games should be praised for the talent behind the show. For the hours upon hours dedicated by the crew to make Vikram Chandra's novel of the same name come to life. Netflix announced Sacred Games back in June 2016. Two years and one month later, it released. It isn't easy to make these kinds of television series (just ask one of the writers of the show Varun Grover), and one has to think of the bigger picture and not just the first season.
Don't count any of the crew out. You may think Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte and the supporting cast (Surveen Chawla, Kubbra Sait, Geetanjali Thapa & many others) have done a fantastic job, and you'd be right. Stop to admire them a little too much though and you'll miss the stupendous music choice in the series (just let the credits roll after every episode) and the lighting in every episode. There's a scene where Siddiqui just switched the flashlight on and off, whilst trapped in an isolation One may not need to do much lighting these days, because of the advent of the digital medium, but it is still an underrated gem in Sacred Games. Just see how Bombay comes alive in different lights.
With one flick of the switch, Netflix has changed the game in India. They want Sacred Games to be India's Narcos. With just their first original, Netflix has surged ahead of others streaming platforms. The show was simultaneously made available in 190 countries. The show has been dubbed into four international languages with subtitles available in 24.
Netflix may have produced a bunch of small films in the country, but with Sacred Games, the company is taking an aggressive step to capture the audiences. Sacred Games is by no means small. It's helmed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap and has some major Bollywood stars to boot. Netflix has ordered four seasons of Sacred Games, and this is by far the largest production in India till date. The production quality is of the highest nature, and one can see Sacred Games on billboards in all metropolitan cities.
Censor board be damned
One advantage that Netflix has is that they can give filmmakers a platform free of any Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) intervention. The CBFC has long faced the public ire for its nonsensical censorship of many a movie. Sacred Games has everything that would piss off the 'censor board' (as they are popularly known). From dime a dozen swear words to violence. From sex scenes to breasts. Sacred Games would have had no chance on any platform.
To take away any of the freedom of expression given to the filmmakers would be a disservice not only to the cast and crew but also to the audience that has long been craving an uncensored tv series of high quality. Whether it is good or bad, doesn't really matter here.
To binge or not to binge: that is the question
The answer isn't so simple. One thing Netflix has taught us, especially with how impatient we are as consumers, is that we all have time to binge-watch tv series. One usually has to wait week-after-week for the next episode of the tv series that they are hooked on to, but not with Netflix originals. Netflix releases all episodes within a season at once.
With a show like Sacred Games, the instinct is to binge-watch it within a day. There are eight episodes in Season one of Sacred Games and each is roughly 45 minutes. That's approximately 360 minutes or just six hours of sitting in front of a television. The youth of today would say that it is a cakewalk to finish it within one evening.
I'd like to offer a counter. Sacred Games is a show you shouldn't binge-watch. Maybe in four days, but definitely not all-in-one-evening.
Sacred Games offers a more linear version of the nearly-1000 page novel. Boil it down, and it's a cop unravelling the mystery of a notorious gangster - Ganesh Gaitonde (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) - committing suicide. Gaitonde shoots himself after summoning inspector Sartaj Singh (played by Saif Ali Khan) and giving him a warning that Mumbai only has 25 days left before the city sees widespread destruction.
Sartaj Singh's integrity has cost him promotions, respect and his wife and the details that go with it - the conversations with his mom, or the fact that his apartment in Mumbai has no water - is just stunning. Sartaj Singh gets the help of a RAW agent (played by the fantastic Radhika Apte) and both of them are at odds with their respective bosses and are running out of time to solve the mystery.
Binge-watch the show and you'll have to wait a long long time for the next season. Binge-watch the show and you'll miss out on many things. The attention to detail in the show is phenomenal. There are two parallel stories running - Gaitonde's backstory and the efforts to unravel the mystery behind his suicide - and each is packed with so much flavour. It's almost unbelievable that this is an Indian television series.
The writers and directors have plucked out many moments from India's history - the emergency, Babri Masjid, Mumbai blast (which can also be seen in the opening credit theme) and so on - and the difference in Bombay, both past and present, is visible through the incredible cinematography (full credit to Swapnil Sonawane, Sylvester Fonseca and Aseem Bajaj).
One needs to watch just an episode or two (do not skip the end credits as you'll just love the music) and just take in all the visual imagery and audio goodness that is being bombarded minute-after-minute.
A cisgender actress playing a transgender character
Let me just get this out of the way first. Kubbra Sait plays the role of Cuckoo, a transgender cabaret dancer whom Gaitonde steals from his rival Suleiman Isa. Sait does a really good job of playing Cuckoo and it shows in the scenes between her and Siddiqui.
The two joke about their differences in height and how she resembles the famous 1970s actress Parveen Babi. Amidst all that the series has to offer, Sait's character is one of kindness and tenderness and a sort of free will with nothing to worry about.
Sait is a great actress. The question to be asked is; why is a cisgender actress playing the role of a transgender character? Sait has said that the role was very challenging as there was no material to refer to. She had to use prosthetics to perfect the role.
"Cuckoo knows she can make anyone dance to her tunes; that's the kind of confidence she wears, irrespective of her gender. My journey of playing Cuckoo was not gender-specific, but emotion-specific," Sait told Mid-Day.
To be fair to the makers of Sacred Games. this was the toughest role to cast. One has no doubt that the filmmakers would have approached many transgender actors and performers who would have rejected the role due to their sensibilities and fearing the reception they would be getting. That's fair. Still, there must be one transgender actor who wouldn't fear acting and appearing in a show, backed by Netflix.
Focus on the episode name
One can see the episode titles - Aswatthama, Halahala, Aatapi Vatapi, Brahmahaty, Sarama, Pretakalpa, Rudra and Yayati - and then hear them verbally at least once during the episode. Each episode is named relating to Hindu mythology.
When Netflix first released Sacred Games, there was one thing that felt short-changed. That was the subtitles. The show is primarily in Marathi and Hindi and having watched it with English subtitles, I can confirm it is a little off. The translations aren't word-to-word translations, they are just the meanings and not necessarily proper sentences.
On Monday, four days after Sacred Games released, Netflix updated the show's subtitles (all 24, in fact). The subtitles are now more in line with what the people are saying and not just the 'gist' of it like before. The subtitles are also now Indian English and not Americanised (Netflix is, after all, an American company). It largely affects the swear words.
Should you watch this Indian television show?
The answer is a resounding yes. Few issues aside, writers Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath have worked tirelessly to whittle down Chandra's novel into just a couple of seasons. Getting the script into a linear narrative (from the book's non-linear narrative) is a tremendous achievement.
The cast is superb, each and every one of them. Saif Ali Khan is surprisingly restrained. Radhika Apte plays a no-nonsense character with great enthusiasm. She herself has said that swearing has been "liberating". Nawazuddin Siddiqui is as Nawazuddin Siddiqui always is. This is the perfect role for him and he doesn't falter.
I've already spoken about Kubbra Sait but from the supporting cast, I'd like to single out one other actor, Jitendra Joshi, who plays the role of Katekar, Sartaj Singh's aide. He struggles with his work and his family. He brings the character to life. It's the sort of liveliness brought to the characters by Joshi and Sait that one pines for in every television show.
The pacing of the show may be slow (even though it has a lot packed into every episode) and to seasoned Marathi viewers, this may not be anything unique, but it is a slow burn. It picks up the pace every now and then thanks to the fantastic cast and agile direction.
Whether you end up liking the first few episodes or not, you must watch till the end. Sacred Games has everything one might want in a television series and it delivers.
Look out for the mandala sprawled across the opening sequence (just some incredible artwork) and at many points during the season. It's the bind that holds the story together.
Sacred Games is by no means India's Narcos, but it does live up to all the hype. Some may find it problematic (as I did in certain areas) but, at the end of the day, it is a gripping thriller about a cop trying to save Mumbai.
Sacred Games is the star that the Indian television market is looking for and the consumers have lapped it up (just look at all the social media commentary). Netflix has seven other originals in the works and one hopes the competing services also pour in money for quality television for us consumers to binge-watch (or maybe just take it episode by episode).
Sacred Games is a must watch.